Interview: Rowena Martinich

Published:  April 20, 2011
Alison Copley
Interview: Rowena Martinich

You may have walked past one of Rowena Martinich’s artworks recently without even knowing it. Described as “an abstract expressionist”, Rowena is largely known for her giant public artworks which have taken residence in a smattering of dull public spaces around Melbourne (including Dandenong Station, RMIT City Campus and Euroluce in Russell Street). Her pieces are recognisable by her use of fluorescent paint and transparent film often inserted into buildings.

I caught up with Rowena to find out where it all began, what’s involved in each project and what she’ll be exhibiting at Art Melbourne.

'Viachroma' at Dandenong Train Station

Hi Rowena, can you give us a bit of background into how you got involved in producing public art?
I grew up on a grazier property in Western Victoria. A place that was limitless with space; I had the freedom to explore, create my own worlds, be my own person. At the age of 12, I came to Melbourne to boarding school. On one hand it was a great opportunity but on the other, I was displaced. In the harsh reality of my situation the art room and what it held was my saving grace. From there my passion grew until I went to RMIT University and majored in painting. I have always loved working on a large scale. In the early days my work was an expansion of a homely landscape with blatant references to Olsen and Williams. Slowly, as I adopted the electricity of the city as my own, my work became more and more abstract and morphed into today’s fluoro-pop gestural explosions. The fact that the work was always restricted to the (exclusive) confines of the gallery space perplexed me. Within the traditions of its zones of display, I felt that artwork that sits in the white cube of the gallery had such a limited audience. I wanted to break this nexus of public (but restricted) exhibition, and allow chosen environs that once were ‘just windows’ or ‘just stairwells’ or ‘dead space,’ transform into places of introduction (and for some viewers of initiation) into the world and culture of the painted mark.

I embarked on a residency/mural project in China whilst I was undertaking a Masters of Art in Public Space. Painting from a rickety bamboo and wire scaffold with giant calligraphy brushes attached to broomsticks was a rapid lesson in working on large scale. Also in negotiating without a shared language to secure materials and communicate concepts to a very traditional audience.
From this point my work gradually increased in scale and through much experimentation and exploration began working onto glass facades. I put forth a proposal to RMIT University’s property management to do a work on the façade of a five storey building on the city campus. In my mind it was highly unlikely that they would allow such a project to go through – especially by a student. So I was shocked, exhilarated (and panicked) when they gave me the go-ahead. I hadn’t quite thought the whole thing through, and quickly realised it was going to be a major experiment in project management, super large-scale abstract painting, and new materials. As it turned out this was a risk worth taking as this major work was the catalyst to my art practice today.

What do you love about this medium?
I am addicted to colour. In my second year of painting, I wandered into an art supplies store and bumped into my then tutor Louise Weaver, gazing bewilderedly at fluorescent paint. I greeted her and she was startled, perhaps even a little embarrassed, uttering something along the lines of “well, once you go near fluoro – there’s no going back…” I thought I’d better try it. And as she suggested, I got hooked. So from then on, fluoro-chroma was my drug. Lashings of painted colour coupled with the sheen of glass and glowing light that passes through the paintings once they are installed onto a façade is (in my eyes) mesmerising. Nothing excites me more than to see an entire streetscape activated with an injection of colour, or to see people responding to the work having seen it for the first time.

I also love the true physicality of working on such a scale. I am forced to walk all over the painting – just to get at it. With the upsizing of scale of the surface – so too is the size of the brush. Regular paintbrushes are replaced with mops, brooms and feather dusters, and palettes replaced with buckets of paint. In this instance I don’t gently dip the paintbrush into the medium, but rather, throw the bucket’s contents and push it about the vinyl surface. Sometimes I make my own painting tools, sometimes I adopt chemical sprayers. Spending hours on your own in the studio, you develop a skill, a new language of painting, a control over all of these paint-distributing-devices to create the marks you want.

I have always been interested in integrating my work with travel and other people and have been able to do this with my practice; doing projects in China, Italy and Turkey. Painting has allowed me to cross cultural barriers without shared language. I have had total strangers in the street come and hold buckets of paint for me whilst I’m half way up a ladder in the back streets of Istanbul – because they live around the corner, they have been watching me work for days, and even though we cant speak a word between us, they just want to be part a transformation. Additionally, allowing my practice to cross over other creative mediums, particularly with architecture is very exciting as architecture has always been one of my passions.

City side - 'Viachroma' at Dandenong Station

Can you talk us through conceptualising and creating the 17m long ‘Viachroma’ at Dandenong Station (inspiration, materials used etc).
There are of course the primary considerations of the site and specific briefing objectives to fulfil – for example, the site for Viachroma is an elevated walkway. I had to be cognisant of safety requirements and that the painting needed to remain translucent in order for pedestrians to be able to see out from the interior, and also be seen from the exterior. Material selection is important to the colour stability and durability of the work, as well as being able to withstand graffiti and vandalism. To me, this side of public art is tedious, particularly cutting through the miles of red-tape that require a traffic management team of six people to stand at the base of a scissor lift for 12 hours on Sunday rates. But it’s par for the course – and I suppose important to mention that doing a work this scale doesn’t just ‘happen’ without a lot of background planning behind the creation of the actual artwork.

Aside from the initial commissioning period where one puts forth a proposal, glossy images and budget to get a project off the ground, when talking about how an idea for a project evolves, it’s probably difficult to describe it as conceptualising. The way I work is very meditative and process-based, with ideas drawn from past painting experiences and an inherent knowledge of colour. When I open a four litre bucket of shiny fluorescent red paint I don’t necessarily have a plan for it, but rather, I’ll put in my earphones, mix a few more colours and something evolves in the deluge of a two to three hour painting fix. During this time my mind and paintings unravel. It’s a process of painterly decision-making, where I find a way through the metres and metres of vinyl and litres and litres of paint. Somehow I discover a coherence to the painting’s balance and composition. For me it’s a matter of how to organise the painting, actions are considered and chaotic all at once. Clear decisions are made – but on an unexplainable intuitive basis. How does one account for one’s logic?

How long did Viachroma take to complete?
Once the project was approved by the City of Greater Dandenong, it took approximately 12 months to secure funding from the State Government Department of Transport and Connex. The actual studio work spanned about a month, and the work was installed in one day.

'Chromaphos' at Euroluce (in Russell Street, Melbourne)

'Common Gesture,' (at RMIT City Campus, Melbourne)

'Common Gesture,' (at RMIT City Campus, Melbourne)

You’ve produced other amazing artworks such as ‘Chromaphos’ at Euroluce (in Russell Street, Melbourne), ‘Chromacut’ (at SIGNAL Artspace in Melbourne) and ‘Common Gesture,’ (at RMIT City Campus, Melbourne). Which would you say is your favourite project has been so far?
All of these projects have presented their own rewards but I would have to say that my favourite work is Common Gesture. Being the first of my super-scale works, the outcome resultant of facing all of its challenges was unforgettable. The location of the building/artwork, meant that you would be strolling around the university, and turn a corner, and bang! There it was. An energy would flow from the colours in the work, which stood like a beacon amongst the historical setting of the Old Melbourne Gaol, glowing 24/7.

What are some of challenges faced when working on such large-scale projects?
The main challenge is not to be scared of it. The scale can be really daunting, especially in the beginning. Even though I have done multiple large-scale works I still get a nervous rush at the start. But eventually the anxiety turns to excitement and I guess at the end of the day – great things only seem to happen when you put yourself out on a limb.

Is there any particular artist in your field that you draw inspiration from?
I love the work of Katherina Grosse – the scale of her painting is phenomenal and her method of production is a performance piece in itself. Though I have never seen one of her installations in the flesh, I can only imagine the experience of being immersed in her oceanic waves of colour would be totally overwhelming and beautiful. Some other artists that inspire me are Joost van Santen, Stephen Hendee, Olafur Eliasson, Judy Pfaff and Dale Chihuly.

What will you be exhibiting at Art Melbourne?
I will be exhibiting some selected vinyl panels from ‘Common Gesture,’ the 136 square metre painting installation that adorned the façade of Building 15 at RMIT University. This giant abstract expressionist work stood as one of Melbourne’s largest ever public paintings. In 2009 after a temporal life of seven months, the vinyl on which the work was painted was carefully peeled from the building’s glass surface. ‘Common Gesture’ has been deconstructed and reformatted from being a public artwork to a series of domestically scaled paintings. My intention is that people can purchase a fragment/memento of the ‘Common Gesture.’ I will also be exhibiting several new paintings on vinyl and some large canvases.

Are you working on any exciting projects at the moment?
I am creating new work that will I will be exhibiting with a new art space – Lorenzetti Gallery in Lyon, France in November this year. The show will be a combination of individual works and installation painting directly onto the gallery space and facade. I am currently negotiating a couple of large painting installations over-seas. Eventually, I want to paint a skyscraper.

You can catch Rowena as part of StArt at Art Melbourne from 19-22 May 2011 at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton. Thursday 5pm.

WIN! We have FIVE double passes to the opening night (19 Thursday) of Art Melbourne to give away. Just leave a comment on this post to be in line to win. Competition closes Friday 29 April.

25 Responses

  1. john

    love her work!

  2. Liz

    I would love to go – the art looks amazing!

  3. Ricki

    Inspirational…! :-)

  4. Tina Sepiadis

    the play on colour is so refreshing and up lifting, especially in Melbourne. Love it!

  5. Melbourne – the city that keeps on givin’! The rest of the world’s got nothing on us :)

  6. Great style. Fluro forever! :D

  7. rebecca

    double u – oh – double u.

  8. Danii

    OMG truly amazing :)

    Love the colour and vibrance

  9. natalie

    Wow, CMYK has nothing on that! Great article

  10. leigh

    Soo good! loves it!

  11. Mel

    thats some awesome work. so original.

  12. Viachroma inspires me, and makes me want to face the day.

  13. kime

    I love how there is structure to this chaos of colors and you appreciate the spectrum when you don’t have your glasses with you. I could look at this all day!

  14. Great interview, great artwork always, great girl always, now great lady always, and now also a great artist…always. I’m happy to have been part of your haven when you were in Boarding School…and many memories of the Art Cottage. Max

  15. sinead

    so energetic and playful. you can’t help but smile.

  16. Sarah Bowe

    Yes, yes! a skyscraper!
    An inspiring story indeed. Looking forward to the Lyon show:)

  17. Liv

    This is the kind of expression Sydney is really missing!

  18. Clare Castle

    The reference to Olsen and Williams (two of my favourites) coupled with Rowena’s love of “fluoro-pop gestural explosions” – WOW! I am totally in awe of this incredibly inspirational modern Aussie artist

  19. Rachel Rickard

    As a resident of Dandenong I would like to thank Rowena for Viachroma and for transforming the once depressing Dandenong Station into a vibrant place with a sense of cultural identity.

  20. It’s simply beautiful! Dandenong seems to have great spurts of public art!

  21. Effie Bakkalis

    Love the bright colours – just perfect for brightening up Melbourne as we move into cold weather season!

  22. I absolutely love Rowena’s work. Awesome stuff!

  23. Great work-amazing colours-would love to see it on show this year!

  24. Arite

    Inspirational, courageous and breathtaking…..there are no limits to imagination and Rowena’s works prove this…she is an Amazing artist!

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